The United States Air Force has demonstrated the ability for its bombers to strike almost anywhere on the globe, and it can keep its bombers airborne almost indefinitely thanks to aerial refueling, also known as tanking. This is not actually a new concept, and the first air-to-air refueling took place nearly 100 years ago on June 27, 1923, when two specially equipped De Haviland DH-4Bs took flight with one serving as refueler via a gravity-flow hose. The technology behind refueling in the air has increased greatly in the past century.
The ability to refuel combat aircraft in flight remains a critical component in power projection globally, and for the United States to defend its interest. Even as the U.S. military continues to adopt new concepts to enhance its lethality and gain decision advantage, aerial refueling is increasingly necessary to enable a more distributed and dynamic force.
And yet, the U.S. military’s aerial refueling capability faces new challenges due to its aging fleet of tanker aircraft. According to a new report from the Hudson Institute, the capability has become “brittle,” placing the United States at risk of not being able to sustain combat against a major adversary, notably China.
The report, “Resilient Aerial Refueling: Safeguarding the U.S. Military’s Global Reach,” written by Tim Walton and Bryan Clark, warned that the Pentagon’s aerial refueling capabilities should be a “top priority.” The authors suggested that the Department of Defense (DoD) should even receive an additional $6.3 billion throughout the next decade to address the problem.
A chief concern is the advancing age of the tankers, which on average are 52-years old, far older than the crews serving on the aircraft. Delays it the adoption of the new KC-46 Pegasus tanker remains an issue, as older KC-10 Extender and KC-135 Stratotankers could be retired before the successor aircraft can take to the skies.
It isn’t just the state of the tankers that is an issue, but the number.
“During the 30 years since the end of the Cold War, tankers have tirelessly operated around the globe, supporting wartime campaigns and peacetime deployments. US Department of Defense (DoD) decisions aggravated the stress on refueling aircraft by shrinking the US Air Force fleet from 701 to 473 tankers while adopting a more expeditionary US force posture and reducing the overseas infrastructure of airfields and bulk fuel storage and distribution,” Walton and Clark wrote. This could leave the U.S. unable to take on new missions.
The authors added the deficiencies in the aerial refueling enterprise could pose three major challenges to the United States military:
“First, logistics weaknesses hinder US forces’ ability to swiftly and sustainably deploy during peacetime competition that could also undercut deterrence by signaling a lack of US preparedness for conflict. Second, logistics capacity constraints hinder the ability of the Joint Force to adopt novel concepts of operation (CONOPS) that leverage distribution and tempo to impose dilemmas on adversaries. Third, and most sobering, aerial refueling capability gaps could cause the United States to be incapable of sustaining combat in defense of US allies and partners.”
To address the problems, the United States Air Force should keep evolving its aerial refueling fleet, and even adopt a new tanker to bridge the gap between the KC-46 and the next generation of tankers, with one contender being Lockheed Martin’s impressive LMXT concept.
“There are technically viable and fiscally achievable alternatives to field a resilient aerial refueling architecture,” the authors added. “To change, the US Air Force will need to not only embrace new operating concepts, but also commit itself to decisive cross-portfolio trades that appropriately accelerate and fund high-impact investments across the entire aerial refueling enterprise and will generate a resilient aerial refueling force.”
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.